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Ne'er cast a clout till May be out

… an old traditional saying first recorded in writing in 1732 but one that recently has had a certain amount of discussion as to its meaning.

Firstly what does it mean by a clout?

  • A blow with the hand or a hard object as in a clout round the ear.
  • Influence or power as in I knew he carried a lot of clout.
  • A piece of clothing or a cloth.
  • A target flat on the ground and twelve times the usual size used in long distance archery.

It’s generally accepted that, in this case, it means a piece of clothing. So that’s the first bit out of the way, don’t take off your (winter) clothes until ……

What about May?  It could be the month or it could mean hawthorn blossom.  According to the “best answer” in YAHOO! Answers.

"May" is referring to May Blossom and not the month of May.  People usually think it means that the month of May is relevant as it is when the weather becomes warmer, but in fact the reference is to the hawthorne [sic] tree, or May bush..... which usually has new leaves in April, and is a good indicator that warm weather is on it's way!!

Well in the 1700’s  hawthorn actually flowered in May which is presumably why it’s often called May. So it didn’t really matter whether it meant the tree or the month the “meaning” of the saying was the same – don’t discard your extra winter layers until the May is in flower or we reach the month of May.

Now-a-days it’s more likely that the first hawthorn will be in flower in April and it’s getting earlier as the climate warms up. Since the 1970’s the average date of first flowering recorded on Nature’s Calendar   is about 3-4 weeks earlier.

So what’s the best advice?  Do you keep your winter layers on until the Hawthorn has flowered or wait until May irrespective of what the hawthorn is doing?  As a naturalist I’d have to use hawthorn as my guide, if you’re a naturist then I’d keep well away from hawthorn, for everyone else just check the weather forecast instead.

 Robert Masham http://rstl.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/79/154.full.pdf+html  

Robin Sutton

Friday, May 20, 2016